Bay Area journalist, writer, blogger, editor, what-have-you

About Me
Writing Samples
My Music


back to writing samples

Artists behind bars

Jackson (Michigan) Citizen Patriot

March 30, 2008

By Bill Chapin

Much has been made of how unusual it is for residents of the Armory Arts Village to be living in what was once a state prison, but it isn't the only building in Jackson County with bars on the windows and art being made inside.

At prisons such as the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility and Parnall Correctional Facility in Blackman Township, inmates are painting and drawing year round. In fact, Buzz Alexander thinks they're creating significantly more artwork compared to prisoners in other states. Alexander is founder of the Prison Creative Arts Project. Based at the University of Michigan, the program sends students, alumni and community volunteers into prisons all over the state to encourage artistic expression among prisoners.

In addition to workshops in creative writing, theater, music, painting, dance and other art forms, the project is responsible for an annual art exhibit. The 13th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners opened Tuesday on the university's north campus.

In its first year, the exhibit featured 77 works of art by 50 prisoners from 16 prisons. It has grown to include more than 300 works by more than 200 artists representing more than 40 prisons. Last year's exhibit attracted almost 4,000 visitors.

Word of the exhibition has spread within the prison system.

"Because of the show, more and more people try art," Alexander said. "There is by far more art being produced in Michigan prisons than any time in the history of American prisons."

Being included in the show is quite an honor for many participants. When curators visited Parnall in January, "one of the guys ... almost teared up when we accepted his art," Alexander said. "One said this is what he waits for all year."

Tom Baxter of Jackson can relate. He participated in at least four of the annual exhibits during the almost 11 years he was in prison on two counts of assault with intent to murder. Almost all his sentence was spent at local prisons, including Cotton and Charles Egeler Reception & Guidance Center in Blackman Township.

A mostly self-taught artist who had dabbled as a teenager, Baxter first took a creative writing workshop, but it didn't really interest him. It was only when the project expanded to include visual arts that he really got involved.

Baxter said the workshops were the highlight of his week. He didn't learn many techniques, but they were valuable for other reasons.

"They brought in materials so we could paint freely," he said. "Every little drop of paint was quite precious in there when you're talking $5 or $6 for a 10-ounce tube."

They also were a reminder that "there are people out there that do care and will treat you like a human," he said.

Painting quickly became a means to procure items from the prison store "without being a burden on my family," he said. He could trade other inmates four or five packs of cigarettes for a card with a hand-painted flower to send to their wives or girlfriends.

Art "was an escape. I could focus on something," he said. "When you're in prison, ... you're in a survival mode. You always gotta think."

Some wardens are more supportive of the program than others, but participation is actively encouraged at Parnall. Posters advertising the art show are posted in housing units.

"The more they get involved in something positive, the less likely they'll do something negative while they're here," said Noe Alvarado, special activities director at the minimum-security prison.

Prison is "just inherently a dreary, negative environment," he said. "The more programming we have in here, the better it is for us and society, too.

"Everyone has an interest in how these guys do."

Alexander, an English professor at the university, founded the project in 1990. Since then it has facilitated more than 750 workshops and 460 original play productions at prisons, juvenile facilities and Detroit high schools. It also sponsors programs to help inmates assemble portfolios and a mentoring program that connects former prisoners with local artists.

The art exhibition started in 1996. Each year the project mails letters to wardens, activities directors and participants in last year's show. Jurors visit each participating prison to meet with inmates and view their artwork.

Because of limited gallery space, a maximum of three pieces are accepted from a single artist, and some artists get turned down altogether.

"Last year we set a limit of 300 and ended up with 346," project administrator Rachel Hudak said.

This year's exhibit features about 20 pieces by artists from Jackson-area prisons, she said. They include a detailed pen and ink drawing of American Indian themes to an autumn harvest landscape done in pastels. Rod Strelau, a prisoner at Parnall, dedicated a painting to his autistic son, and has asked all proceeds from sales of his paintings at the show to go to autism research.

Family portraits and familiar landscapes are common themes in the show, Alexander said. As one might expect, there are fair number of prison scenes and political work. Fantasy- and tattoo-inspired work are common, too.

Purely abstract paintings tend to be rare, but there are usually a couple.

"The pieces there are just incredible," Alvarado said. "Some of these guys are really talented." He said many prisoners talk about being able to go to the show once they are released so they can "see what the other artwork is like compared to theirs."

Baxter has only missed one show since he was released in 1999.

"The first time I went, it was overwhelming," he said. "I've watched different artists and seen how they're progressing."

Alexander said the quality of the art has continued to improve as prisoners try to outdo each other.

"A lot of artists have started taking risks they haven't before," he said.

Baxter continues to participate in the program. He was part of an exhibit of work by former prisoners at Focus: HOPE in Detroit this winter, and Jackson artist Andrew Lopez is mentoring him through the program's Linkage Project.

He said Michigan prisoners are "pretty lucky" to have a program like the Prison Creative Arts Project. Making art can boost morale, he said, and "if you've got low self-esteem, you're going to end up coming back."

"I think that had a lot to do with me coming out of there fairly sane," he said.


If you go

  • What: The 13th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners
  • When: Through April 9. Hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday and Monday
  • Where: Duderstadt Center Gallery, University of Michigan North Campus, 2281 Bonisteel Blvd., Ann Arbor
  • Cost: Free
  • Details: 734-647-7673 or


back to writing samples

[home] [about me] [resume] [writing samples] [contact] [my music] [blog]